Phuket is the perfect place to go hopping mad on Thailand’s paradise islands
Thailand is full of moments and memories you won’t forget, the things that make you smile when you’re having a bad day or staring at another grey, dreary sky
Climbing the ladder I repeated the words over and over like a mantra in my head: “It’s just like riding a horse.”
But no matter how many times I said it, the reality of clambering on to the enormous elephant in front of me was no less daunting.
The experienced mahouts made it look easy, their legs nonchalantly folded under them or swinging behind a gigantic ear.
They could have been lounging on their couch at home.
Sadly my own attempt at elephant riding – or more to the point, sitting – wasn’t quite so relaxed, and a world away from elegant as I tried to refrain from shrieking when my trusty steed set off… backwards.
And while any attempt at grace or elegance was a distant memory within seconds, it is a moment I will never forget.
But that is what Thailand is full of – moments and memories you won’t forget, the things that make you smile when you’re having a bad day or staring out of the window at another grey, dreary sky.
There are stunning, white-sand beaches, lush tropical jungle and the kind of turquoise sea you see only on postcards.
And while a holiday to one of Thailand’s islands was a bit of an epic undertaking in the past, with flights connecting via Bangkok, now the revolutionary Thomson Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet flies from Gatwick direct to the island of Phuket, cutting hours off the journey – not to mention the bigger seats, windows, cabins and enhanced air supply that help to reduce jet lag.
It means what was often thought of as a destination you could only consider for a two-week holiday is now a feasible option for a week, without having to spend most of it exhausted or having to sleep to recover from the journey.
But even if you do suffer a touch of jet lag with the seven-hour time change, it will soon be forgotten.
A world away from the frenetic bustle of major cities such as Bangkok, the peaceful resort of Khao Lak, on the mainland north of Phuket island, takes life at a more leisurely pace.
If you’re looking for a relaxing holiday, it doesn’t get better than this.
As well as a beautiful beach and more sunloungers than you could ever need, my hotel, the JW Marriott Khao Lak Resort and Spa, also has an enormous pool snaking through the whole complex.
In fact, if you can’t face the thought of the three-minute walk to the beach, those in the ground-floor rooms have only to step outside and straight into the pool from their patio.
One of the other delights of Thailand is the food, and while there are dozens of local restaurants, you don’t even have to leave the hotel to enjoy a fabulous feast.
The Thai and Japanese restaurants at the resort are particularly good.
But while the hotel is perfect for chilling out, if you crave something a little more exciting, there are plenty of excursions available.
First came the elephant riding – don’t worry, you get a proper seat for the trek itself – where you go on an hour-long ride in the Khao Sok National Park.
And while the seats are more stable than an elephant’s neck, it’s undeniably a wobbly experience.
If that sounds a little too adventurous, there are plenty of chances to sightsee around the park, with stunning views of rivers, waterfalls, jungle and local wildlife.
All in all it is a photographer’s paradise.
And if you want even more photos, you can take a canoe trip down the river (more sitting, less paddling), and might also be as lucky as we apparently were and see a snake in the trees above you.
Other trips go to the bay at Phang Nga, where you can visit a rubber plantation before watching the monkeys at a nearby Buddhist temple and feeding them nuts or bananas.
Be warned, though, they will climb on you to get to the food a bit faster – and they’re not shy about it!
And at the temple, which is set inside a huge cave (spectacular in itself), are enormous golden statues.
If you time it right you might be lucky enough to get a blessing from a monk too.
But many of the main attractions of a holiday flying direct to Phuket are actually on the smaller islands surrounding it, with fantastic sights and clear seas for diving and snorkelling.
Several films have been shot in the area, including Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach, and the towering rock formation made famous in The Man With The Golden Gun led to the island of Khao Phing Kan becoming known to most as James Bond Island.
We took a ride out on a traditional long-tailed boat, which is a fun way to get around even if it looks like it belongs on a canal instead of the sea.
Just be prepared for more less-than-glamorous moments as you get in and out of the boat at the busy dock on James Bond Island.
The rock formation is just as spectacular up close, but there are loads of tourists.
Still, as long as you don’t expect your own beach, you won’t be disappointed.
The best way to see these islands is on an organised tour from Phuket.
I went on a trip to Phi Phi, where you can either relax and sunbathe, or swim and snorkel.
But first you’ve got to get there. I’ve always believed some instructions in life are just meant to be ignored.
So when the crew of the speedboat I was sitting on the front of said I should go inside to avoid the big waves, my first thought was, “Pah, it’s only a few waves, it’s just health and safety gone mad”.
After an hour of scream-inducing lifts and drops worthy of a world-class roller coaster, I vowed to always do as I’m told in future.
But while it might have been a bit of a bumpy ride, it was also fun, and the less adventurous (or just more sensible) passengers had a much smoother time inside.
A couple of days later I’d recovered enough to try another speedboat trip, this time on the other side of Phuket to the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea.
With more chances to snorkel, there are sea turtles, huge multi-coloured fish and corals to wow you before you return to shore exhausted but happy.
And thanks to spas and beach massages, exhaustion doesn’t last long in Thailand.
The hotel’s Quan Spa was fantastic, and the signature massage cured months’ worth of back knots in an hour.
It’s the perfect way to end the afternoon before lying back on a beach-front lounger, cocktail in hand, as the sunset turns the sea a blazing orange.
Try being stressed about work looking at that…